Burt Wolf's Table: Across Canada, Via Rail Part 1 - #214

BURT WOLF:  As the Via Rail trains of Canada travel from coast to coast, they give you a good look at the natural beauty of the second largest country in the world.  They also give you the opportunity to stop off and taste the foods that have become part of the nation's gastronomic history...  from the elegant influence of the French in Ontario, to the down-home meals of the Eastern Europeans in Manitoba.  So join me as we travel across Canada at Burt Wolf's Table.


In 1836, a tiny locomotive called the Dorchester hauled Canada's first train into the age of the railroads.  It was one of the most important events in the history of Canada.  At the time the movement of both passengers and freight was extremely difficult.  There was a great sense of isolation between many of the communities.

That sense of isolation was of enormous concern to a group of people who were trying to bring Canada together into one great nation, a nation that would stretch from the Atlantic Coast to the Pacific Coast.  As soon as the railroad pioneers got into business, it became apparent that the fastest way to build that nation was to connect everybody up with a coast-to-coast railroad.  Ah, but there was a problem.  In 1980, thousands of California gold miners had gone up to the western part of Canada to look for more gold.  The citizens there were in an area called British Columbia, and there was a real chance that that whole place was going to become part of the United States.  The Canadian government couldn't stand that, so they raced over to British Columbia and began to negotiate with the citizens there to join Canada.  And they said fine, but first you've got to connect us all up with a coast-to-coast railroad. 

The first contract for construction was signed in 1874.  Five thousand men and seventeen hundred teams of horses went to work.  The task was extremely difficult, especially in the mountains of the west.  Bridges had to be built over rivers that constantly changed their banks.  The road bed had to be blasted and chopped out of solid rock.  Getting supplies to the construction crews was a superhuman task.  The original funding proved to be insufficient and it looked like the company might fail.

And then a most unusual series of events came into play.  There were a group of people who were the descendents of French trappers and local natives who had had a longstanding dispute with the federal government.  In 1885, it broke out into armed conflict.  And it looked like it was going to get out of hand.  Until suddenly three thousand troops showed up right in the middle of the battle and put the rebellion to an end.  They were able to show up almost instantly because they came by railroad.  One result is that everybody who had anything to do with the railroad was suddenly a hero with the federal government.

That gave the government the popular support that it needed in order to help fund the railroad's construction.  On November 7, 1885, the last spike on the Canadian Pacific Railway was driven home and regular train travel between Canada's east and west coast got underway. 

The railroads had received large grants of land from the federal government, which they could lease for sale to settlers.  The railroads quickly realized that the best way to market their land was to do everything they could to encourage immigration to Canada.  The great waves of immigrants that arrived on the shores of North America during the second half of the 1800's represented a major commercial opportunity for the railroads.  This is a photograph from the 1890's showing a train packed with men newly arrived from Europe and on their way to the west.  It shows Eastern Europeans in what was called a colonist's car.  The racks above the seats were sold as sleeping areas.

There was a coordinated program to keep the new arrivals together by ethnic group, make them feel more comfortable in their new surroundings.  Then they would write back home and tell their relatives that everything was fine.  And more relatives would come over.  It became big business, it became good business and it met the government's objectives for greater and greater immigration.  Well, Canada is a huge country and from the beginning of its European colonization, it has been hungry for people.  And that makes perfectly good sense.  It is one of the most beautiful places in the world.  It would be a shame if there was nobody here to see it. 


During the Second World War, there was an enormous increase in passenger train travel.  Gas rationing and troop movement sent the railroads into a period of great expansion.  After the war, the Canadian railways built a series of cars specifically designed for sightseeing.  Cars with considerable luxury were introduced and the golden years of Canadian railroading got underway.  And rolled on right up to the end of the 60's. 

By the 70's, however, most people were doing their traveling by plane and car.  Passenger traffic on trains had dropped off to a point where it was no longer economically feasible for the railroads to run the kind of passenger service that they had run in the past.  But passenger service was too important to the people of Canada.  And so the Canadian government stepped in and organized a company called Via Rail.  Via Rail's job was to bring back the "Golden Age" of passenger trains and they're doing a great job.

This is Via Rail's most dramatic train; it’s called the Canadian and it runs right across the country from Toronto to Vancouver.  The trip takes three days, and its quite an adventure.

My favorite part of the train is the last car; it’s called the Bullet Lounge.  Armchairs rest against the walls of the car and passengers sit around the room chatting and watching the fast- changing scenery through the panoramic windows.  The clocks are set to each of the country's time zones through which the train travels.  In the center of the Bullet Lounge is a staircase that leads up to the observation dome, an extraordinary spot for viewing the Canadian  landscape.  Can't think of a nicer seat for a traveler.

When you get on board the Canadian you are given a guide book that does an amazing job for you.  When the railroads were first built, they were divided into “railway division points.”  And that's not a standard measure, like a mile or a kilometer; it’s actually the distance that a steel locomotive could travel in one day at the time the particular line was built.  Now, within those division points are standard mile markers.  Mile marker zero is where the locomotive started its day and two or two-fifty would be where it ended its day.  As you travel along and you look out the window, you'll see the mile marker number; you check it in the book and it tells you where you are and the significance of the place outside.  It's like having a personal guide with you through the entire trip, but you only get the information you want and when you want it.  It's a good system.

There are five different types of accommodations.  The largest is the drawing room which has three beds; next is the bedroom which has two beds; and third is the roomette with a single bed.  Each of these has its own armchairs and washroom facilities.  The train also has something called an open-section berth.  The seats are a little more or less public during the day, and turn into closed sleeping areas at night.  Finally there are standard coach seats. 

I went across Canada in this car with my son James, three days and three nights.  James got the top bunk, I got the bottom bunk and he got there before me.  Oh, maybe just a little bit.  At first I thought it was going to be a little cramped, but it turned out to be much more roomy than I thought, or maybe James was just better company than I expected.

It's interesting to see how the sitting room turns into the sleeping room.


Now that is an efficient use of space.


And of course there is the dining car:  linen- covered tables, porcelain, silverware, fresh flowers and excellent service.  Via Rail is achieving considerable success in its effort to bring back the good old days of restaurant gastronomy. 


Transcontinental trains going from east to west start out from the city of Toronto.  Toronto is the largest city in Canada and a major business and cultural center.  The CN Tower, which is the world's tallest free-standing structure, dominates the skyline.  CN stands for Canadian National, which is one of the two great companies that built this nation's railways.  Toronto is one of the most livable cities in North America; relatively clean and safe with an excellent system of public transportation.  Toronto is also a city of extraordinary ethnicity.  The Huron tribes who lived here for thousands of years gave this area the name Toronto, which means “a place of meetings.”  And that is still a perfect description.  During the last hundred and fifty years dozens of different immigrant groups settled here and carved out their own neighborhoods, with Greeks, the Italians, the Portuguese, the Chinese, the Ukrainians, the Japanese and a large group from the Caribbean.  They have each held on to just enough of their history and customs to give the city a rich and complex pattern of traditions.  They've also given the city a marvelous selection of restaurants.  Toronto is a great place for food lovers.  This is Toronto's Union Station which was built in 1927.  It is the departure point for all transcontinental passengers heading west, and today that includes me. 

Within an hour after departure, he urban surroundings give way to the countryside of Ontario.  Ontario is a native word that means “shining waters.”  The Iroquois people who named the area were right on target, since Ontario contains one-fourth of the world's entire supply of fresh water.  The train constantly passes lakes, ponds, rivers and streams as it zips through the province.  Ontario is huge, larger than any country in Europe and any state in the U.S. except Alaska.  And in spite of the fact that it contains Canada's largest urban center, ninety percent of the province is still unspoiled forest.

The kitchens on Canada's Via Rail trains are not the easiest kitchens that I have ever worked in, but they do have two distinct advantages.  First of all, they make the cooks select recipes that give you the most taste for the least work.  And second, the scenery outside the window is always changing.  One of the most popular dishes on the menu that also gives you lots of taste for very little effort is this chicken breast in a port wine sauce.  Chef David Kissack starts by giving a boneless skinless chicken breast a light coating of flour.  A little vegetable oil goes into a heated frying pan and then the chicken goes in and cooks for two minutes on one side and three minutes on the other.  When it’s cooked, it comes out of the pan and is held aside.  A quarter cup of milk goes into the pan, a tablespoon of low-fat cream cheese, two tablespoons of sun-dried tomatoes and about a tablespoon of port wine.  Then the chicken goes back in to mix with the sauce, and it’s ready to plate.  Half of the sauce goes onto the serving plate, then the chicken, the second half of the sauce, some sauteed vegetables and finally some potatoes. 

One of our earliest pieces of cooking equipment was the griddle:  a flat surface being heated from below, the food being cooked on top.  At some point in history someone decided that holding a little more moisture around the fruit was a good idea.  Edges on the cooking surface got turned up and the first frying pan went into action.  It's very similar to a saute pan; the only design difference is in the sides.  Frying pans curve out, saute pans are straight-sided.  The theory here is that the saute pan is used for flipping the food around; the word “saute” is French and actually means “to jump.”  The straight sides help keep the food in the pan.  The frying pan is used for foods that take a turn and then depart.

When you're buying a frying pan, it’s important to pick one out that's made of highly heat-conductive material.  You want the heat to get from the burner to the food as quickly and as intensely as possible.  Good materials are aluminum, lined copper and cast iron.  You also want to choose a pan where the handle is very well-connected to the pan.  This is the part of the design that's going take the most pressure, so you want it to work well.  It's also nice to have a pan with a handle that is heat-proof so you can put it in an oven.  There are lots of recipes where the pan starts out on the burner and then ends up in the oven.  So a heat-proof handle could be a great help.

As the Canadian continues its way through the province of Ontario, the chefs advance their preparations for the first dinner seating.  The dish that will be on the menu tonight is sauteed shrimp with paprika.

A little vegetable oil goes into a non-stick frying pan; as soon as it’s hot, in goes a quarter cup of chopped onions, followed by a few sliced mushrooms.  That gets sauteed for a minute, at which point the chef adds a tablespoon of chopped garlic and a quarter cup of chopped tomato.  Five shrimp and a half teaspoon of paprika.  Finally a splash of white wine, a little salt and pepper and some cilantro leaves.  Rice that's been colored by cooking it with turmeric goes on the plate, the shrimp in the center, a little more cilantro, and it’s ready to serve.

The simplest description of paprika is that it is a spice made by grinding red peppers into powder.  Paprika first got to Europe when Spanish explorers brought it home from the New World just after the time of Columbus.  It went from Spain to Italy, the Turks found it in Italy and brought it to Hungary where they were hanging out anyway.  It was a very important move for it; it was kind of like when Bette Midler moved from Hawaii to Hollywood -- things opened up.  It appears that Hungary has just the right soil and climate to get this stuff at its most intense heat and flavor.  But for the first two hundred years of growing it in Hungary, it was more heat and not enough flavor.  Then in the mid 1800's, two Hungarian brothers figured out how to make this stuff without the seeds and the veins.  Lots of taste, not too much heat;  it became a really important spice all over Europe. 

Paprika is thought of as being healthful, and these days we're finding out why:  it's packed with vitamins A and C.

Vitamin A and vitamin C are now described as anti-oxidants and it appears that they may retard the growth of cancer and reduce the effects of aging.  I should say the negative effects of aging, because as I grow older and encounter some of these effects, I find that some of them are wonderful and some of them are not so wonderful.

The most striking thing about a trip across Canada on a Via Rail train is the magnificent scenery.  The train's specially designed dome cars make it possible to really see what this country looks like.  Even though my job is to travel around the world making professional video pictures for television, I ended up taking my own home video of the trip.  A busman's holiday. 

As the train enters the Province of Manitoba, the land opens up into wide and level river valleys.  Manitoba has over two hundred major lakes, and their fresh waters offers some of Canada's finest fishing, for pike, perch and lake trout.  Manitoba's one of Canada's prairie provinces, part of the country's heartland.  The landscape was shaped by glaciers during the Ice Age, and it's marked by deep rivers and flat rich tablelands.  The first people to inhabit the area were nomadic bison hunters.  The first Europeans into Manitoba were French fur traders who had a bad habit of trading whiskey to the natives in exchange for skins. 

The Canadian Mounted Police came here to stop that practice and they eventually consolidated the area into what is today's province.  Many of the people who originally came here were brought by the railroads to settle on land owned by the railroads.  It was an early stop for the immigrant trains that brought people from Poland, Hungary, Germany, Greece and the Ukraine.

Manitoba is one of the most fertile farm areas in Canada.  It grows beets, corn, potatoes and wheat.  Wheat is one of Canada's major crops and millions of tons of it are exported every year.  And it was the need to move wheat from the center of Canada to its coastal ports that set Canada into developing its national railway system.  Freight trains carrying wheat are a standard part of the Canadian landscape.

Wheat is a form of grass, an essential element in the civilization of man.  Historians tell us that our ancient ancestors were nomadic.  They would wander from place to place in search of food.  But somewhere about seven thousand years ago, we began to settle down near stands of wild wheat.  And we figured how to plant the grain so we would have a dependable supply.

Next thing you know, we had jobs and mortgages and wheat became the staff of life.  Wheat plays a very important role in the stability of nations where wheat is the primary cereal.  Whenever a nation cannot deliver enough of its primary cereal to meet the needs of its people, it's on its way down the tubes.  We saw it in Ancient Greece, we saw it in Ancient Rome, and most recently we saw it in Russia.  For hundreds of years Russia produced so much wheat that it could meet the needs of its people and actually export some.  Then during its Communist period, wheat production became so bad that the Russians began importing wheat.  Millions and millions of tons every year from Canada and the United States.  A couple of years later, and you see the beginning of the end of its economic system.  As soon as a country cannot deliver its primary cereal to its citizens, it's on its way out.


The farms of Canada have been central to the nation's growth.  Farms that were settled in the 1800's by thousands of immigrants who came here from all over Europe.  One of the most important groups came from Germany.  And they produced the type of farm that they had worked on back in their original home towns.

They also tried to reproduce the recipes that they remembered from their childhood.  The meat that had been part of German cooking for hundreds of years was soon on their table.  That meat was pork, and it was there in just about every form you could think of.

Today Executive Chef George McNeill of Toronto's Royal York Hotel is preparing a traditional German stuffed porkchop.  A little vegetable oil goes into a frying pan.  As soon as it’s hot, in goes some chopped carrot, onion and celery.  Plus a few ounces of soup stock.  That cooks for two minutes and goes into a mixing bowl.  Cubes of pumpernickel bread are added and half a beaten egg.  All that's pressed together to make a stuffing; nutmeg, oregano and thyme are the seasonings.

At this point the stuffing goes into the refrigerator to cool down, which makes it a lot easier to stuff.

Next, a loin of pork with the bone in is cut into chops.  A pocket is cut into each chop and then stuffed with the stuffing.  A wooden skewer is used to hold the pocket closed.  A little vegetable oil is heated in a frying pan and in go the stuffed chops.  Two minutes of cooking on each side will give the chops color.

GEORGE McNEILL:  You notice that we have the very long toothpicks because we want to make sure that we remove them before the customer gets them.  A lot of people at home will put the very small toothpicks because they're more readily available.  Often they'll leave them in, but since it's family it really doesn't matter.

BURT (to George):   Not fair!

BURT WOLF:  Then onto a heat-proof dish.  A little apple juice goes into the pan and the drippings from the chops are scraped into it.  Half of that is poured on top of the chops, at which point they go into a 375 degree oven for forty minutes.  The remaining apple juice gets an addition of stock, a little salt and pepper and ten minutes of boiling to reduce and thicken.  The chops come out of the oven and they're ready to plate.  A little red cabbage, some German noodles called spaetzel, a chop, watercress and the pan gravy. 

During the 1980's there was a substantial decline in the amount of pork eaten in North America.  The reduction was in part caused by the public's interest in a diet that was lower in fat.  Medical researchers were discovering the importance of a low-fat diet.  At the time pork was very high in fat, and so it quickly got on the Very Limited Consumption list.  Well, the pork producers got the message, and today's pork is thirty percent lower in fat than it was in 1983. Which is not to say that pork has suddenly become a low-fat food.  We're not talking poached haddock here, but there is a place for pork in a healthful diet.

The leanest cuts of pork come from the loin.  And only about twenty percent of the calories in a pork loin comes from fat.  If you're looking for a low-fat alternative to regular bacon, take a look at Canadian bacon.  It's a pork loin that has been smoked and cured.  Only forty-one percent of the calories in Canadian bacon come from fat.  Regular bacon gets seventy-four percent of its calories from fat.

I say it over and over again to remind myself -- that's something you do as you get a little bit older -- there are no good foods, there are no bad foods, there are just inappropriate amounts.  If you choose your pork from a lean cut, serve it in moderate portions of about four ounces and cook it to 170 degrees, you should be fine.


The massive immigration of Europeans to North America started in the middle of the 1800's; millions of them came from Eastern Europe.  One of the largest groups of Eastern Europeans came from Poland.  Many of them settled in the prairie provinces of Canada and put the fertile farmland to good use.  Their cooking became a basic part of the ethnic cuisines of Canada.

Executive Chef George McNeill of Toronto's Royal York Hotel often uses typical Polish farm recipes as part of his home cooking.  Right now he's preparing stuffed cabbage.

Cabbage leaves are cooked in boiling water for three minutes, and then dried out.  The stuffing is made by sauteing a little vegetable oil with a chopped onion, a cup of ground pork and two cups of precooked rice.  That's placed onto the cabbage; the leaves are rolled up.  They go into a heat-proof dish, seam-side down.  A little stock goes in and they're off to a 350 degree oven for thirty-five minutes.  The sauce is made by sauteing chopped onion, mushrooms and a touch of cream.  Some of that sauce goes onto the plate.  The cabbage returns, a little more sauce and its ready.

That's the traditional Polish farm recipe, and the cream is fine because the Polish farmers were out there burning those calories.  I don't actually get to do much farm work these days, so I leave out the high-fat cream and I put in chopped tomatoes and their juices; it still works fine.

The round tightly closed cabbages that we use today were developed about a thousand years ago, by the farmers of Northern Europe.  Before then, cabbages were a much more open and loose affair. 

Cabbages like this, with their compact heads, became a very important food source to the people of Northern Europe.  They thrive in cold weather and they store well.  Along with broccoli, cauliflower and brussels sprouts, they are members of a family called the cruciferous vegetables -- and what a family it is, too.  You can spot a cruciferous vegetable by looking at its base.  You'll see a series of thick ribs that form a cross.  That's the “cross” in “cruciferous.”  Scientists have been studying these cruciferous vegetables, and they find that there is something in them that is a cancer blocker.  They don't know what it is, or how it works, but they've got enough research to tell us to get more cruciferous vegetables into our diet.

When you're picking out a cabbage in your supermarket, look for heads that feel heavy and look solid for their size.  You also want healthy- looking outside leaves without any cracks that are caused by drying out.  And the leaves should be tightly attached to the stem.

And don't cut your cabbage until you're just about to use it.  As soon as you cut a cabbage, it begins to lose its vitamin C.


Well we've come to the end of the line here  in Manitoba.  Please join us next time as we continue to travel around the world looking for good things to eat and drink at Burt Wolf's Table.